Size matters

In 2013, I built my own home in Charlottesville Virginia. While reading through the Carbon Efficient City this week, I was brought back to the struggles I experienced during that process, and interested in how the discussion could have changed with some more effective regulation.

House

To frame this discussion, here is a bit of information on the house. It is 780 square feet, serviced by well water, heated by a wood burning fireplace, passively cooled, and with a lot of the components (windows, doors, etc.) built by hand. While all of my neighbors laughed at me that I would go through permitting for this (think rural Virginia) I played by the rules and built a fully code compliant, permitted house.

Where this gets interesting is, when I went to get sign off on my rough-in inspection, the building inspector found that I did not have enough space in my roof framing to accommodate the required R38 insulation (I could only fit R30). Based on this, I was compelled to significantly alter my roof framing, tearing substantial portions of the roof off in the process.

I know, basic take away, do a better job of reading the code.

Beyond that, as I thought about it, I found it frustrating that I was being held to one prescriptive code, while no consideration was given to the holistic view of how energy efficient my home was. Basically, I was being held to the same specification standard for a low intensity 780 square foot house as my neighbor was for a 4,000 square foot colossus next door.

I am not suggesting that I should have received an exception. What I am arguing though is that energy efficiency is a relative measure, and addressing it via prescriptive zoning or energy codes is not the most effective policy. In the Carbon Efficient City, AP addresses this problem under the auspice of existing, complicated historic preservation. The solution proposed is to move to an outcomes based model.

This shift should not be limited to existing buildings. Especially in residential construction, where use intensity is easy to quantify (number of bedrooms, average family size, etc.). Codes could be designed to give developers a range of options for reaching a specific energy target per intensity, and leave the developer to optimize the problem. The result of this would be a system that more accurately tracked the energy efficiency of a building, and added in a factor sorely lacking in current energy policy, size.

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